The 2021 season was a stark contrast for the two franchises. The Giants toiled to attain mediocrity, but their efforts were futile, and the Titans were the number one seed in the AFC. Tennessee sacked Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow nine times in the Divisional round but could not overcome quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s three interceptions.
A 52-yard Evan McPhearson field goal as time expired shattered the Titans’ hopes of a deep playoff push. For the entire offseason, Ryan Tannehill had to simmer on the loss, as his star wide receiver A.J. Brown was traded for a first round pick to the Eagles.
Personnel changes for the Titans limit the explosive upside of a very conservative offense. Still, a clean bill of healthy for running back Derrick Henry provides the Titans a much needed catalyst to head coach Mike Vrabel’s identity.
The offense runs through the 6’3, 247-pound back, but can the pieces around Henry allow the two-time rushing champion to reach his ceiling? Will the Giants’ recent vulnerability at linebacker - with the departure of Blake Martinez - be exploited by the Titans?
It’s plausible. The Giants are putting a lot of responsibility on fifth-round rookie Micah McFadden and 2020 Mr. Irrelevant Tae Crowder. Expect to see the Giants in a TITE front with Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, and Justin Ellis with Jihad Ward as the strong side EDGE.
Stopping the run on the road might prove to be difficult against a team that averaged 141.3 rushing yards per game last season; that ranked fifth in the NFL, and Henry only played the first eight weeks of the season.
Current Carolina Panthers’ backup running back D’Onte Foreman valiantly filled in for the injured Henry, who dealt with a right pedal foot fracture:
Tennessee was middle of the pack in scoring in2021. They scored an average of 24.2 points per game, ranking 14th in the NFL. They were 17th in yards per game with an average of 343.1. The Titans led the league in rushing attempts per game. Both Henry and Foreman averaged 4.3 yards per carry, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill added seven touchdowns on the ground.
Tannehill’s 2020 season was hyper efficient, and more downfield oriented; the veteran quarterback took advantage of defenses focused on the run. In 2020, Tannehill tied Patrick Mahomes in intended air yards per target with an 8.4 average (13th in NFL); one year later, that number was down to 7.5 yards (23rd in NFL) with the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett.
Intended air yards per pass attempt could be misleading based on how defenses are playing quarterbacks, but Tannehill is not seeing the same defensive coverages as Patrick Mahomes. Henry routinely faced stacked boxes (eight defenders or more), providing Tannehill a more advantageous secondary to attack.
Tannehill’s touchdown percentage was the second lowest of his career in 2021. He finished with 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions - a touchdown ratio of just 4 percent; it was at 6.9 percent in 2020 and 7.7 percent in 2019. Tannehill was sacked the second most times in his career last season, and his yards per attempt were the worst since joining the Titans.
Despite the dip in efficiency and production, the Titans won 12 games. They did so with a poor 28th-ranked average explosive passing play rate - the Giants finished last, of course. Now factor in the loss of Brown, and one can surmise more regression is lurking for Tennessee.
The Titans traded Brown to the Eagles for the 18th pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. That pick was spent on Burks, a big-bodied wide receiver who is entirely different from Brown. The Titans also did not retain veteran wide receiver Julio Jones.
The Titans and Brown disagreed on the worth of the 25-year-old receiver, so he was shopped, and Howie Roseman awarded the former Ole Miss Rebel a four-year, $100-million contract with $58 million guaranteed.
Burks was not a traditional wide receiver at Arkansas. His route tree was limited, and a lot of his production was on designed touches, screens, and some 50-50 verticals down the sideline. He’s talented but not as versatile or nearly as athletic as Brown.
This downgrade wouldn’t be a huge issue if the Titans had other promising pass catchers, but they do not. I love Robert Woods, but a 30-year-old Woods coming off a torn ACL shouldn’t be - far and away - the number one passing option on an offense.
Nick Westbrook-Ikene is ideally a number four receiver who will start. Austin Hooper is a journeyman tight end who was relegated to a more blocking role with Cleveland last year. Kyle Phillips is a wildly underrated slot option as a rookie who I think can cause trouble for opposing defenses. However, the entirety of the options seems unbecoming of a team that just finished first in the AFC.
Burks offseason was strange. A reported bout of asthma slowed his progress during the early parts of summer; those reports turned into conditioning concerns and a possible irritation from Vrabel and offensive coordinator Todd Downing.
He did not play with the first team in the Titans’ first preseason game, and he played with the third team deep into the fourth quarter. He did, however, catch a 14-yard touchdown pass from Malik Willis in the Titans’ third preseason game. He started trending in the right direction, but his level of impact remains uncertain heading into Week 1.
Henry will continue to be the focal point of this team. Last season, he only had less than 20 carries once in eight weeks before his injury. Vrabel is not scared to hand the football off to Henry in a deficit - he is their identity. He is huge and talented, but his offensive line is not what it used to be.
Left guard Roger Saffold signed with the Bills in free agency, and 2020 UDFA Aaron Brewer will take his place. Brewer is young, undersized, and only has six career starts. Replacing Saffold will not be easy.
2019 third-round pick Nate Davis will start at right guard. According to Pro Football Focus, Davis allowed 33 pressures and five sacks in slightly more than 500 pass-blocking snaps last season. Ben Jones will be the center, and long-time left tackle Taylor Lewan will start on that side.
Lewan had a slightly down year last season as he battled through injuries, but he is still only 31. Dillon Radunz enters his second season looking to prove his worth as a second round pick. I wasn’t a big Radunz guy when he came out of the draft in 2021, but he could have developed over the last season.
This team has question marks in both pass protection and run blocking. The right side of the line is a significant question mark; it is inexperienced and a bit undersized. Titans offensive line coach Keith Carter has coached on the Titans for five years and has done a great job. If the right side struggles, his work will be cut out for him this season.
The Titans will attempt to establish the run and expose the Giants’ weak second level with their play action passing attack. The pressure on Crowder and McFadden is palpable - good luck stopping No. 22. Much responsibility will be placed at the feet of the Giants’ defensive line.
The Titans are not infallible. They have weaknesses that can be exposed, and sound run defense can keep New York in this game. However, the Giants are a young team with holes throughout their roster. They must find a way to control the football, get an early lead, and take advantage of takeaway opportunities to pull off the upset.